Just How Sexually Active Are Adolescents Today?

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Media headlines have been abuzz lately with reports of kids having sex at younger and younger ages. Perhaps you heard about the four Louisiana fifth-graders who made national news when it was discovered that they had sex at school in an unsupervised classroom. Or perhaps you read about the lawsuit filed against a California preschool when it was discovered that two 5-year-old girls performed fellatio on a male classmate and the teacher failed to stop it. Is sexual activity among kids really as rampant as these and other media reports suggest? According to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, perhaps not.

This study examined data collected as part of the National Survey of Family Growth. Specifically, the researchers examined the responses of 3242 women and 3104 men born between the years 1984 and 1993 [1]. All participants were asked at what age they first had sex (please note that for purposes of this research, “sex” was defined as heterosexual vaginal intercourse—of course, that’s a major limitation, and we will come back to it later...). All participants were also asked about when they first started using contraceptives, and female participants were asked whether their first experience with vaginal intercourse was voluntary or non-voluntary.

Results indicated that sex before age 12 was relatively rare, as you can see in the table below. Less than 1% of women and less than 2.5% of men reported sex before age this age; however, you can see that the numbers steadily increase from there. This table also shows that men tend to start having sex sooner than women, but by age 20, women have completely caught up in terms of percentages. The other thing worth pointing out in this table is that the younger a woman is when she has sex for the first time, the more likely it is to be nonconsensual. 

 

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The researchers also found that the earlier an individual started having sex, the less likely they were to use contraception, and the longer it took for them to start using birth control. Specifically, for individuals who had sex at age 15 or later, more than 80% reported using contraception during their first sexual event. In contrast, among those who reported sex at or before age 12, only 52% reported using contraception at first, and it took five years for persons in this group to start using contraception at levels equivalent to those who delayed sex until age 15 or later.

While these results suggest that sexual activity among very young adolescents is probably pretty rare, it is important to keep in mind that this study only inquired about one type of sexual activity (i.e., vaginal intercourse). The numbers would likely be a bit higher had the researchers also inquired about oral sex, anal sex, and same-sex activity. I find it troubling that "sex" is so often defined in very narrow terms in research on adolescents because it substantially limits our knowledge and makes it impossible to determine adolescents' sexual health needs. In addition, the researchers focused solely on contraception use, which is important, but should not be the only thing we consider. We also need to be looking at condom and barrier use because sexually transmitted infections are a major public health concern for teenagers.

Although younger adolescents may not be as sexually active as the public perceives them to be, it is important to recognize that a number of these kids are indeed having sex and are not taking steps to protect themselves and their partners, which is yet another reason parents and schools must start providing more (not less) in the way of sex education.

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[1] Finer, L. B., & Philbin, J. M. (in press). Sexual initiation, contraceptive use, and pregnancy among young adolescents. Pediatrics.

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